Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Nichomachi tablet

  • Title: Symmachi tablet
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    On this tablet, known as the Symmachi panel, is engraved a ritual scene connected to the cults of Bacchus and Jupiter, on account of its representation of ivy, which binds the woman’s head, and oak, underneath which she stands. A boy assists the woman, holding aloft a wine jar and a bowl of fruit or nuts, while the woman stands before an altar, taking incense cones from a box to sprinkle on the fire. This tablet comprises one half of an ivory diptych. A “diptych” is two panels hinged together with the carved images facing out and a shallow recess cut on the reverse, into which wax was poured. Words could then be inscribed on the wax’s surface, ranging from letters and poetry to accounts.

    Diptychs need not be made from ivory, but the two aristocratic families, the Symmachi and the Nicomachi, who commissioned this panel and its partner could afford it. Both families were prominent at the end of the fourth century CE, and some scholars believe the diptych was intended to commemorate an alliance, such as a marriage, between the two clans. Alternately, the diptych could celebrate the women of the families assuming the priesthoods of the cults represented in each carving: those of Ceres, Cybele, Bacchus, and Jupiter. These four cults were well-known in Rome up until the start of the fifth century.

    Antonio Francesco Gori, identifying the Symmachi tablet’s subject as a Bacchic wedding sacrifice, argues that the diptych was originally a wedding present, and was reused, possibly as a gift, perhaps on the occasion of a Bacchic rite. Hans Graeven (d. 1905) rejected Gori’s claims, largely on account of the tablet’s imagery. In his opinion, it relates to the Mysteries of Eleusis, Dionysus, and Magna Mater. Once members of the Symmachi and Nicomachi families received the initiation depicted on the reliefs, he concluded, they offered this tablet to the divinity. Richard Delbruech (1929) later decided that this was a “priest-diptych,” which served as a notice to other priests that the tablet’s owner was inviting them to her investiture ceremonies. Kinney, on the other hand, notes that no scholar has ever assumed that the Symmachi or Nicomachi commissioned the diptych for themselves. Rather, all interpretations of these reliefs assume that the diptych was made to be given away, whether to gods, fellow priests, or ritual participants.

    Kinney argues that the diptych originally functioned as a codex. Perhaps since both Quintus Symmachus and Virius Nicomachus were prolific letter-writers, the ivory codex could have delivered important messages. Or, because, as high-ranking men, both would have sent and received poems, copies of the classics, and other writings, the codex was used for this social exchange. If the Symmachi and Nicomachi families kept these plaques for themselves, then no date of any special occasion event is relevant to their dating. In place of the proposed early fifth or late-fourth century dates of special occasions, Kinney proposes that the diptych was created in the 360s or 370s, closer to the first quarter of the century when its ivory was harvested and when the “cultural climate was much more conducive to this kind of ‘pagan’ iconography.”

    Both the pagan imagery depicted and the style of the panels’ carvings, as well as their composition, all echo earlier models, particularly Greek ones. The prototypes, Williamson believes, were likely Roman copies of Greek originals. These tablets, harkening back to ancient Greece, appear, not coincidentally, at a time when aristocratic Roman families were desperately attempting to preserve pagan religions in the face of Christianity, which had become the official state religion in 380 AD. Williamson says, “The Symmachi and Nicomachi families were at the centre of the resistance and did as much as they could to protect the old beliefs against the antagonism of the Christians. They paid for the upkeep of the temples out of their own pockets, debated with the Christians about the merits of tolerance in religious matters, and edited ancient texts such as Livy and Vergil for the benefit of future generations.” Understood in this context, the Symmachi and Nicomachi panels represent these families’ aristocratic and pagan ideals in a newly Christian Rome.

    The tablets, because of their late antique provenance, each boast “spatial and physical ambiguities,” and their carvings are “imperfectly classical.” In 1992, however, art dealer Jerome Eisenberg proposed that the Symmachi tablet was too imperfect. He drew on “the ‘completely misunderstood priestess’ garment,’ her ‘awkward stance,’ and the execution of the altar ‘as if on a flat surface…’” as evidence that the tablet is a nineteenth-century fake. Kinney, while seeking an explanation for these awkward details, discovered that, when viewed from the left or right, the tablet no longer displays a “distorted” image. Seen obliquely, the apparently disturbing torsion of the woman’s lower body seems correct. Only the garland, hanging from the altar, consistently seems, in her words, a “mistake,” even when viewed from alternate perspectives.

  • Source: Image #1: Victoria and Albert Museum
    Image #2: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Image #1: Permitted non-commercial use of content. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
    Image #2: Licensed for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
  • Subject (See Also): Classical Influences Paganism Priestesses Sacrifices Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 4- 5
  • Date:
  • Related Work: Nichomachi tablet page from the Musée de Cluny
    Ivory plaque of women at Christ's tomb believed to have been made by the same workshop of artists who created the Symmachi and Nicomachi tablets (Source: Catello Sforzesco).
    The Barberini ivory, leaf of an imperial diptych from the first half of the 6th century.
  • Current Location: Symmachi tablet: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 212-1865
    Nichomachi Tablet: Paris, Musée de Cluny, Cl.17048
  • Original Location: Rome, Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Sculptures
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Elephant Ivory; Plaques
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 29.6/12.1/1.8
  • Inscription: On the Symmachi tablet:
    On the Nicomachi tablet:
  • Related Resources: Cameron, Alan. The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford University Press, 2011;
    Cutler, Anthony, and Dale Kinney. “A Late Antique Ivory Plaque and Modern Response.” American Journal of Archaeology 98,3 (1994): 457-480;
    Kinney, Dale. “The Iconography of the Ivory Diptych Nicomachorum-Symmachorum,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 37 (1994): 64-96;
    Kinney, Dale. “Old Friends.” In Anathemata Eortika: Studies in Honor of Thomas F. Mathews. Eds. Joseph D. Alchermes with Helen C. Evans and Thelma K. Thomas. Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2009. Pages 195-203;
    Williamson, Paul. "The Symmachi Panel, about 400 AD." Victoria and Albert Museum: The World's Leading Museum of Art and Design. Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006. URL: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-symmachi-panel/